When I was fifteen, my school’s English and history departments decided to go full throttle on the harrowing content. We had slavery and genocide units one after the other. I asked the head of English what exactly was going on, and whether this was a coordinated effort. She told me that, at fifteen, it was time for us girls to be faced with what the world was like.
I don’t think it occurred to our school administrators that not every student at our school, in a very comfortable area though it was, had been experiencing a violence-free life full of sunshine. Lots of us were living lives that had been greatly affected by violence and ethnic cleansing. Using those stories for shock value, to scare the supposedly silly little schoolgirls into the real world, was seriously missing some of the harm already experienced and, by this approach, perpetuated.
I’ve been reminded of this lately because I’ve been experiencing similar horrors at university – although, happily, not so contempuously targeted ones. I’m studying history and English again, and am sitting through films the likes of which I’d rather avoid. We’ve had to endure, for instance, some graphic rape scenes without any warning. Statistically, a lot of the audience members will be sexual assault survivors, trapped in a dark room with a giant reminder of what they’ve been through in front of them. Somehow, everyone is expected to be able to sit through this. We’re expected to have absolute emotional detachment from highly emotional matters, and we’re expected to endure without any discussion or simple warning of what we’re about to see. (Or read; I just read a novel containing gang rape, queer bashing, and vivisection, luckily not of the same person.)
Absolute detachment for everyone is neither possible nor desirable. In order to be able to understand the import of what one is learning, one needs to have proper respect for it. Attempts at supposed objectivity are really attempts at drawing away the humanity of what’s going on here, and of only allowing people without personal understanding or investment to engage. And I mean that for formal study and the study in which one engages simply by going about everyday life. Death and violence are certainly not the means one should use to toughen up people in one’s charge.
Having proper respect for a subject also means talking it out rather than plunging people in unexpected horror and expecting them to swim. Whether you’re talking to a class or talking to some friends, something needs to shift in the way in which we engage in difficult topics. The expectation that people will just deal – or that people present couldn’t possibly have experienced hardship – needs to shift. Societally, we need to shift the conversational mode into a real, engaged conversation entailing checking in with those around us. In a casual setting, you might ask the general group if ‘it’s okay if we talk about this, or should we talk about something else?’ If you’re responsible for a room full of people (say, students) you don’t know intimately, you might highlight the topic, its context, say that you understand if anyone needs to leave the room and they can do so without explicit permission, and have a general chat so as to make your audience feel safer and not as though they are expected to be automatons.
It goes back to common sense, really: be considerate of the sensibilities of those around you. And recognise that bad things don’t just happen somewhere else. We all have lives and histories and horrors, right here.